A food assistance program in Berkshire County is making fresh food available for people in need.
The Suspended Groceries program was developed by a group called Kinetic, part of the Centers for Learning in Action at Williams College. Catharine Parker was one of eight students focusing on food insecurity within the action-oriented think tank. The sophomore says the idea stemmed from a growing initiative launched Italy in which a person buys a coffee for a future customer, in a sense paying it forward.
“What if we could adapt to a grocery store setting where the impact of the suspended item would be some sort of food item where it could make a long-term, lasting impact on food insecurity,” said Parker.
After developing the idea for about a year, the group approached Wild Oats Market in Williamstown. David Durfee is the co-op’s general manager.
“They had come up with the idea and just needed somebody to implement it,” Durfee said. “I know they’re also that other supermarkets in the area will do it. My sense was that we do it and we could do it fairly quickly. There didn’t seem a good reason not to do it so we said ‘Yes’ we’ll give it a try.”
Since the program’s rollout at the market around the first of May, Durfee says customers have purchased about 50 items each week for others. Coupons for the items are sent to local food pantries like the Berkshire Food Project in North Adams. Food bank clients simply take the coupons to the co-op and get the items. Valerie Schwarz is executive director of Berkshire Food Project, which served 27,000 people in 2013. She says the first round of coupons was given to young parents participating in a cooking and nutrition class.
“Having fresh fruit, broccoli, frozen berries and fresh eggs are really such important parts of everyone’s diet and not everybody can afford them,” said Schwarz.
Schwarz says about 15 people have been using the coupons, but the ability to get to the market remains an issue. She is hoping to work with Berkshire Rides so people won’t have to rely on her for transportation. Durfee says what appeals to customers is knowing exactly what their donation will go toward.
“By making a specific purchase rather than by making a cash donation that isn’t designated for anything, Suspended Groceries lets you buy a dozen eggs, a bowl of soup or a head of broccoli for example and know that somebody who couldn’t necessarily buy it him or herself can now get that," said Durfee.
Other than designing a logo and marketing materials, the initiative came at no cost to Wild Oats. If the program is successful, Durfee hopes to rotate and expand upon the six items currently available. Parker says a few other grocery stores have expressed interest in adopting the program. She says the group will create a standardized implementation plan this summer so the program can maintain its core values in different store settings.
“We see Suspended Groceries as something that at different points of time you could be the one suspending groceries and at different points of times you could be the one who needs the extra help from the suspended grocery coupons,” Patrick said. “You could easily be on either side of that line at different points in time and I think that gives everyone a feeling of investment in the issue and in their community. This is a very easy way to invest in your community and show that support for everyone.”